On Monday, September 4, 2023, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette reported that Walter Bernard, a Black Pittsburgh lawyer and former NFL football player, has filed a federal lawsuit against Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Philip A. Ignelzi, alleging multiple violations of his civil rights. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, stems from a series of events that began on May 3.

On that day, Bernard was arrested at his home and taken to an Allegheny County courtroom in shackles. He was given a mere 15 minutes to negotiate a civil lawsuit in order to secure his freedom. However, when Bernard failed to fulfill the judge’s wishes, he was arrested again on August 9 for a bench warrant during a court appearance related to the same civil case. This time, he was held behind bars for nearly three weeks.

During his time in jail, Bernard claimed to have been treated well by correctional officers but described the food as terrible. He spent his days mentoring fellow inmates, engaging in prayer sessions, and holding Bible meetings.

The civil court case in question revolves around a commercial lease dispute involving Bernard and his brother, Wynton Bernard. The brothers owned Escape Room Sports in McCandless and entered a six-year lease agreement with the landlord. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the business to shut down, the Bernard brothers stopped making rent payments, citing a clause in the lease that allowed for rent abatement under certain circumstances.

The landlord is seeking a judgment of $100,882 for the full lease amount, but the Bernard brothers have requested a reduction in the judgment since a replacement tenant has since moved in. The dispute over the judgment amount has led to repeated objections by the Bernards to produce documents, including tax returns and bank statements.

Bernard alleges that Judge Ignelzi has acted outside of his jurisdiction and claims that the original judge on the case, Judge Alan Hertzberg, retained exclusive jurisdiction and that the matter was also on appeal. Despite a pending appeal, Judge Ignelzi ordered the brothers to produce the documents within three days, threatening their arrest if they failed to comply.

Legal scholars have expressed surprise and concern over the handling of the case. David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, stated that if the attorney’s allegations are true, it is not how the criminal or civil justice system is supposed to work. Bruce Antkowiak, a professor of law at St. Vincent College, described the situation as unusual and suggested that there must be more to the story.

The lawsuit filed by Bernard seeks redress for the alleged violations of his civil rights. Judge Ignelzi has declined to comment through his judicial secretary, and investigations by the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board and the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board are ongoing.

For Bernard, the experience has drawn comparisons to civil rights activists of the past, and he is determined to stand up for justice. The case has raised concerns about judicial conduct and the proper functioning of the civil and criminal justice systems.

 

Source: Pittsburg Post-Gazette